Ed Burke's Got a Rocket in His Pita Pocket

Sick of protein shakes and energy biscuits? Meet the exercise physiologist who has revolutionized sports nutrition with a radical new diet for athletes—real food.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine


I'M SLUMPED AGAINST THE counter in Ed Burke's kitchen, just back from a 30-mile bike ride, reeling from low blood sugar and watching with a mix of horror and shattered expectations as the 51-year-old nutrition expert loads his plate with a fried chicken burger on a plain white bun.

Edmund R. Burke, you must understand, is a fitness guru and dietary Jedi Master who has helped bicycle racers at all levels maximize their athletic potential. Just days ago, I began my pilgrimage at his octagonal house in Colorado Springs, my own personal Mecca, hungry for athletic rapture, for the guidance that would transform me from a 39-year-old cyclist who has never won a race into a middle-aged Lance Armstrong. I'd read Burke's many books and columns on bike racing and training and nutrition, marveled at his work with American cycling heroes like Armstrong, Greg LeMond, Marty Nothstein, and Rebecca Twigg. I'd even used the products he has helped develop or written about, like the CamelBak and the Polar Heart Rate Monitor. Most recently, however, I'd become obsessed with Burke's latest innovation, a four-step nutritional approach to recovering from strenuous training or competition that is not only changing the way endurance athletes eat but is igniting the next big performance breakthrough.

In fact, ever since I read Burke's 1999 book Optimal Muscle Recovery, my tendency toward training by the numbers has blossomed into a full-scale mania. My pantry now bulges with canisters of predigested whey powder and glucose polymers, with antioxidants and creatine and glutamine and extract of grape seed. My racing bike has become a rolling display case of performance gels and drinks and bars. And after even the easiest of training rides, I won't shower until I've consumed the correct amounts of carbohydrates and protein that, according to Burke, will replenish my fuel stores, repair my damaged muscles, and let me train harder all over again the next day.

And yet, after spending the last few days with Burke, I'm having doubts about my nutritional messiah. In a deli at the University of Colorado's Colorado Springs campus, where Burke is director of the exercise physiology program, I caught the slender athlete-turned-researcher dousing his coffee with a small waterfall of half-and-half. I saw him ogle a plate of chocolate éclairs and then joke that such foods weren't fatal. As if. And now, at a time when Dr. Recovery ought to be drinking something technical and precise, like a whey shake or one of the dozens of premixed "recovery" products spawned by his very own work, Burke sits down to a meal straight out of a junk-food fantasy: a leftover chicken burger. Not only does he seem to lack the kind of rigid self-discipline I've always associated with a high-performance diet, but the man eats everyday food, without measuring portions, without counting calories, and without a side dish of pharmaceutical supplements.

Burke meets my incredulous stare. "Hey, it's got carbs and protein," he says, shrugging his skinny shoulders. Then he offers the first lesson in my long journey toward nutritional excellence. "Recovery," he says, "has nothing to do with being a Food Nazi."

IN THE LOUD world of sports nutrition, with its multimillion-dollar endorsement deals and outrageous claims of performance enhancement, Burke and his laid-back dietary pragmatism would be easy to miss altogether. Yet over the last decade, his work on muscle recovery-that is, on the foods and fluids your body needs after hard exercise-has emerged as the revelatory missing link in sports nutrition. Although eating before and during extended exercise has long been conventional wisdom, Burke was among the first to package and popularize the idea that what you consume after a workout-specifically during the 30- to 60-minute "glycogen window" when muscles are most greedy for infusions of energy from food-can replenish the fuel you've burned up, repair the microtears in your muscle tissue, and flush out the stress hormones that break down muscle protein during exercise. Recovery, we have come to understand, is when your muscles and cardiovascular system evolve, compensating for exercise's extra demands. And without proper recovery, there can be no athletic progress. Indeed, recovery nutrition has proven so effective that Burke's band of disciples now includes fat-tire legend Gary Fisher, six-time Ironman winner Dave Scott, nine-time New York Marathon champ Grete Waitz, many U.S. Olympic swimmers, and the entire Colorado Avalanche hockey team. "The old theory was that recovery was just something that happened after you trained hard, and there was really nothing you could do to speed up the process," says former Olympic cyclist Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's coach. "Burke changed all that."

Happily, Burke isn't just interested in ministering to the pros. For although he knows precisely what nutrients professional athletes need to come back stronger the next day, Burke has a broader mission. Simply put, he believes that anyone who exercises-amateur triathletes, mountain bikers, snowboarders, rock rats, hell, even a cubicle-bound desk jockey who staggers his way up Mount Hood once every couple of years-can benefit, substantially, from a course in recovery nutrition. "You'd be amazed," says Burke, "how many people finish their workout, head back to the office, have some Doritos and a Coke, then wonder why they feel so burned-out."

It's enough to make a scientist weep-and to do everything he can to spread his nutrition gospel to the unconverted. Accordingly, Burke's liturgy is presented like an athlete's user manual in Optimal Muscle Recovery, dividing recovery into four easy- to-grasp steps that Burke has branded as R4 (restoring fluids, replenishing fuel, reducing muscle stress, and rebuilding muscle protein). And just to make sure we don't screw it up, he's gone a step further by helping design a prepackaged drink mix-Endurox R4, made by a company called PacificHealth Laboratories Inc.-based on his recovery program.

No surprise, the modest success of Endurox R4 has sparked a stampede of imitators for whom "recovery" is a million-dollar mantra. Everyone's got-or soon will launch-a recovery product, from boutique offerings like Hammer Nutrition's Hammer Pro (with 100 percent glutamine enhanced whey protein) and Smartfuel's Biofix ("the ultimate recovery drink") to the big boys' products like Champion Nutrition's Revenge Pro and Gatorade's forthcoming Energy Drink. And while most companies make their own claims about their products, hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition, many have not only glommed on to Burke's basic premise, but are intent on committing the marketing dollars to launch a full-scale recovery-nutrition movement. Alas, in yet another variation on a classic business phenomenon, the mild-mannered doctor is now, like a bonking cyclist ahead of the peloton, in danger of being overtaken and left behind by his idea.